This is my 12th book review on books related to the current financial crisis. To see my previous book reviews check my previous articles. My most recent book is best seller The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It by Scott Patterson. Scott Patterson is a staff reporter at the Wall Street Journal. The book was released on Feb 2, 2010.
The book starts off with details of the genius gambler and trader Ed Thorp. Ed Thorp is the man who discovered card counting and was able to use it to beat the house in Black Jack. Ed Thorp would later use make millions of dollars in the stock market using mathematical formulas. Scott Patterson described Ed Thorp as “the God Father” of the Quant movement. Scott Patterson describes in detail Thorp’s attempts to use math to make money. Thorp would use his math skills to find arbitrage situations where he could make a quick profit with little risk. He used mathematical models to value convertible bonds and made a killing pioneering convertible bond arbitrage. Thorp closed his fund when many copy cats started using his strategies and he thought the field was getting too crowded.
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The book describes several math whizzes that went on to develop quantitative strategies to quickly exploit inefficiencies in the market. The book describes the Quants as nerds who could not get dates in High School, and spent their time conducting bizarre science and math experiments. They typically got their PHDs in Mathematics from schools like MIT or the University of Chicago. They were students of Ed Thorp, who even helped one of them set up their quant fund.
They also were strong believers in Eugene Fama and the efficient market theory. Eugene Fama believes that the market is efficient and that it always reflecting all known data. When the market is not priced correctly knowledgeable investors will quickly come in and either buy or sell to the point where the market reaches equilibrium. This is where the Quants come in. They would use their complex formulas to find these small inefficiencies in the market and using rapid trading techniques profit off these inefficiencies.
Some of the Quants described in detail in the book were Guru Ken Griffin of Citadel Investment Group, Peter Muller of Morgan Stanley’s hedge fund PDT, Cliff Asness founder of AQR Capital Management, Jim Simons of Renaissance Technologies, and Boaz Weinstein who ran hedge funds at both Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank.
The Quants like their mentor Ed Thorp, did not only use their models to beat the market. The Quants regularly played games of Poker with each other. Many of the Quants mentioned in the book were expert poker players, winning various professional poker tournaments.
What is particularly interesting about the book is Scott Patterson’s description of the financial crisis that took place in August 2007. You probably never heard about this crisis because media barely reported it. Yet in August 2007 several Quant funds with a combined several hundred billion dollars in assets, were on the verge of collapse.
There has been very little has been of hedge funds and the systematic risk their collapse could cause. Every book I have read on the crisis details September 2008 when Lehman Brothers, AIG and the many other financial institutions were teetering on the verge of collapse.
Scott Patterson details the near collapse of the financial system a year before the one in September 2008. The massive losses for the Quant funds started in August 2007 before the damage was really being felt in the rest of the financial sector. Suddenly, the models the Quants were using started not working. What happened was what Nissim Taleb described as a “a Black Swan event”. This refers to unexpected events that have a large and sudden impact.
To read the rest of my book review on GuruFocus.com click here
Disclosure: New FTC guidelines require me to disclose I have a material connection because I received a free copy of the book to review.
Pimm Fox interviews Scott Patterson about the book